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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Sunday, December 7, 2014

The 10 Best Books (I read) in 2014

It seems half the time I'm grousing or griping about whatever I'm reading not meeting my hopes and expectations or not living up, in the end, to the early promise of the first chapters that no doubt caught the attention of an agent or editor and earned a publishing contract. So it's reassuring to take a moment, as I do each December, to look back on all that I've read and to share with those few who read these posts a look-back at the -

10 best books I read in 2014.

At Night We Walk in Circles, by Daniel Alarcon
Complex and powerful novel about political and literary radicals in a Latin American country much like Chile; Alarcon is an American author, writing in English, but his style deeply influenced by Latin American authors - and for the betters. One of the few recent novels both politically engaged and powerful as a narrative as well.

The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride
I usually don't care for historical fiction, but this account of John Brown and his raid on Harper's Ferry read more like a strong, iconoclastic narrative that illuminates the life of the powerful leading character - not  like rehashed chronology of events. Strong as both fiction and as a reminder of a strange and troubling time in American history.

The Guermantes Way, by Marcel Proust, translated by Mark Trehane
What would a year be without re-reading at least one Proust volume, especially in the new set of translations? TGW not for everyone, but for those who care re-reading brings even deeper pleasure. In this volume Marcel begins to understand the rot and hypocrisy at the base of the Parisian aristocratic society that he so yearns to enter.

The Hamlet, by William Faulkner
By no means his best-known novel and probably not his best, either, but worth reading for the wry humor and of course for the introduction of the loathsome Snopes family.

My Struggle, Volumes 1 and 2, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Translated by Don Bartlett
First two volumes of the 6-volume series by contemporary Norwegian writer; has come in for lots of criticism as navel-gazing, self-centered, trivial - couldn't be more wrong. It's the deepest exploration of consciousness in literature since Proust, and at various times moving, frightening, hilarious, sorrowful. Will definitely read vol 3 next year and the rest when they come out in English. 

Nathanael Hawthorne Selected Stories
The only story collection on this year's list (though a nod as well to collections by Malamud, Singer, and Turgenev), but the Hawthorne collection is a notch above; he's too easy to write off in that he was antique even in his day - but the strangeness of such gems as Young Goodman Brown and The Minister's Black Veil make these stories vital still.

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
Sometimes called the best American novel of the last half of the 20th century. Maybe - but in any case it's still a fantastic read, an incredible narrator, and, though a little tendentious in the last chapters, entirely memorable for the account of his early life (the battle royale, the expulsion from an all-black Southern college, the arrival in NYC and attempts to find work, the betrayal of those whom he trusted, and the haunting final moments).

The Natives of Hemso, by August Strindberg.  Translated by Arvid Paulson
This one sat my my shelf for many years but was inspired by this year's travels to read it at last and was very moved and surprised - a terrific account of the people on a remote island and their struggles against rising economic forces that are threatening their way of life. More than a century old but feels very contemporary and entirely accessible.

The Odyssey, by Homer. Translated by Stephen Mitchell
A really clear and dramatic translation of this classic that everyone thinks they know - but probably you don't. The heart of the epic is of course the journey of Odysseus, but there's a lot more as well - and of course it establishes one of the major tropes of world literature, the journey home and the arrival of a stranger in town, for which also see ... 

Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy
Melodramatic, over-written by today's measure, but still completely engaging and sorrowful, tragic.

Yes, I noticed that it's all male authors on this year's list; I didn't want or intend that, but these are the books that stayed with me and meant the most to me in my year's reading. And yes I realize that, once again, the list is dominated by classic rather than contemporary works. There's a reason, though, why some books are classics and still in print and why most contemporary novels will not outlive the year. I always encourage readers to widen their spectrum and include many classic works on the reading list - and don't be afraid to re-read either!

Comments always welcome - and - coming within the week: The 5 most disappointing books I read (or tried to read) in 2014.


  1. How about Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, a novel I really loved.

  2. Don't know that author - not the author of Bones, is she? Will look add it to my Q.